A Chinese bishop who avoided government intervention in the affairs of his diocese has died without having his Vatican-appointed successor officially ordained.
Vatican-approved Bishop John Liu Shigong of Jining (Wumeng) in the northern Inner Mongolia autonomous region died aged 89 on June 9 after being diagnosed with liver cancer in May. He is the fourth Chinese bishop to die this year.
A funeral for the bishop is scheduled for June 15 and to be presided over by Bishop Meng Qinglu of Hohhot at the Jining East Church, with a burial in the church cemetery at Hua’ershan.
It is believed that in 2010, the Holy See appointed Father Anthony Yao Shun, vicar general of the diocese, as Bishop Liu’s successor. Father Yao was ordained a priest in Jining in 1991 and graduated from St. John’s University in the U.S. in 1996. The 52-year-old is considered a liturgy expert in China.
Soon after the Vatican appointment, Father Yao returned to the diocese from Beijing, where he taught at the National Seminary, and began managing church affairs in place of the bishop, said a church source who asked not to be named.
According to the Chinese government, which does not recognize papal authority over a bishop’s appointment, a Catholic bishop must be produced through an election. The result has then to be approved by the bishops’ conference, which is not recognized by the Vatican, before an episcopal ordination can take place.
To get around the requirement, some dioceses hold an election after the Vatican appoints a bishop for them.
“The diocese prepared to run an election several years ago but government officials came and showed Bishop Liu the regulations about ordaining bishops, such as the diocese has to accept that the authorities can assign any bishop as consecrator or co-consecrator,” the source said.
Bishop Liu was unhappy after reading the regulations and there has been no progress with regard to electing a bishop as per the government’s requirements.
“Election and ordination need to take place eventually as a ‘home cannot have no master,'” said the source. “But if there is a bishop not recognized by the Vatican attending the episcopal ordination, our priests for sure would not accept it,” the source said.
“The Chinese government would only consider its own interests. So, unless the Vatican compromises to an extent that makes the government satisfied, the diocese will possibly delay the bishop appointment procedure until a better time,” the source said.
The Vatican has prioritized closed-door negotiations with Beijing since 2016 in a bid to resolve the thorny issue of bishop appointments. Beijing demands the Vatican recognize seven government-appointed bishops whom the Vatican does not recognize. Meanwhile, the Vatican wants Beijing to recognize about 20 bishop candidates that it has appointed for the open community, including Father Yao, and nearly 40 underground bishops.
Jining has about 60,000 Catholics served by 30 priests, one deacon and 12 nuns. It has two seminarians.
A bishop remembered
The source said Bishop Liu was “a kind and nice” man who did not care much for formality.
Bishop Liu was born in Sizi Wangqi, in Inner Mongolia on Aug. 18, 1928. He entered the seminary at the age of 14. His vocation was suspended when the seminary he was attending was closed due to political turmoil in the late 1940s. He returned to the seminary again in 1952.
He was ordained a priest in 1956 and served in the parish until religious activities were prohibited again due to political turmoil. During the Cultural Revolution, he became a farmer for a period but was also sent to a reform-through-labor camp. He re-assumed his duty as parish priest when religious activities revived in the late 1970s. In 1995, he was ordained Bishop of Jining.
The source described his Vatican-preferred successor Father Yao as a “rigorous and careful person who has great patience with others.”